AS AN ambassador for charity Save the Children, she has witnessed abject poverty in Africa and Asia.
But actress Ashley Jensen said she has been left dismayed by the number of impoverished children leaving school unable to read well in her native Scotland.
Jensen, who starred in the US sitcom Ugly Betty and the BBC’s Extras, is spearheading a campaign to tackle the alarming finding that one in five children from poorer households leaves primary school behind with their reading – which is four times as high as pupils from better-off households.
Jensen said: “I’m actually quite shocked that one in five children here are struggling to read. It has a knock-on effect. It’s not just sitting down reading a piece of literature, it’s about establishing you for life and not starting off on the back foot.
“Imagine being a ten-year-old child going home from school and thinking ‘I’ve failed’ when it should be a time of hope and optimism.”
A coalition of charities including Save the Children has launched the Read On. Get On. campaign in a bid to get all 11-year-olds reading well in a generation, to help counteract the effects of poverty and increase job opportunities.
The charities want parents to read to their children for ten minutes a day. A campaign report shows that one in ten children leaves primary school with poor reading skills but the figure doubles for children from the most deprived backgrounds.
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There are around 220,000 children growing up in poverty in Scotland with the figure set to rise.
Last year, the number of children in poverty increased by 30,000, with predictions that one in three children will be affected by 2020.
Jensen, 45, who grew up in Annan, Dumfriesshire, said: “People are busy, often both parents are working. Sometimes we forget that there is nothing a child wants more than time. Children just want you to have that connection.
“For some children, reading books can feel a little bit intimidating. But they could be reading a comic book about a superhero or a blog about their favourite footballer.”
The report also highlighted the wide “book gap” which has emerged, with 40 per cent of families in the lowest income bracket having fewer than ten children’s books at home.
Jensen said she relishes reading stories such as Max and the Won’t Go to Bed Show, by Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton, to her five-year-old son, and that her teaching assistant mother read to her every night. She added: “Every day before bedtime, no matter what, he says ‘Can I have another story? Can I have another story?’.
“There is that unadulterated focus on your child, sitting closely, snuggled in your arms and taking them on an adventure.”
Marc Lambert, director of Scottish Book Trust, part of the coalition along with Scottish Business in the Community, Scottish Library and Information Council and Volunteer Scotland, said that while the lack of good early language skills could hold a child back, there were ways of tackling the problem.
He added: “The good news is that it’s not hard and it’s enjoyable: parents reading with their children for just ten minutes a day can make a huge difference.
“All the research says the same thing – instilling enjoyment of reading at an early age has a determining impact on the rest of a child’s life irrespective of their background.”
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